Jane Embury, director, looks at what lies ahead for our urban areas.
It was good news last week when the prospect of a Covid-19 vaccine was finally announced.
If it passes its remaining hurdles, mass vaccination may mean that life can return to normal next year.
But the legacy of the pandemic is not going to go away that quickly, leaving behind a very changed world.
Nowhere is that changed reality being felt than in our towns and cities. There are almost daily announcements of job losses and shop closures on our high streets.
Whatever happens in the next six months, our towns and cities will begin to look very different. For a start, the shift to homeworking and the huge growth in online shopping isn’t going to go away.
It’s an issue we have addressed, because the future of our towns and cities is important. So too the planning policies that will help or hinder urban renewal and growth.
We therefore know how infrastructure projects can positively impact on urban areas, bringing jobs and wealth to deprived areas.
Covid-19 has, however, shifted the planning debate and, so far, the government is yet to respond creatively or constructively.
While we have welcomed its announced £5 billion investment in construction, we also question whether having a central focus on housebuilding is the right response.
The fact is that lockdown has, and will, create de-urbanisation as more people continue working from home – at least part-time homeworking – shop online from home, and move out of town.
That in turn will accelerate divisions in society, as more affluent people move to greener areas, leaving poorer families behind. This has enormous implications for every facet of society let alone the built environment.
Of course, the office isn’t dead. It provides a social as well as a business function, and people need to meet and interact with colleagues. The difference is that we don’t need to be there every day, buying coffee or sandwiches, or shopping in our lunch hour.
Maybe it means the rise of what have been termed suburban towns, with offices relocating out-of-town and, perhaps, replacing shops or cafes that have been forced to close. In other words, rather than people going to offices, bringing offices closer to people.
Whatever our post-Covid-19 towns and cities look like, they will not be same as they were. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about how government, local and national, can plan for that new world of challenge and opportunity.
It’s a debate that requires input from all directions, not least from academics, other social scientists, architects and planners.
It’s a long-term debate that should start now. Rather than be swept along by poor planning decisions, we need a clearer understanding of the social and economic impacts that Covid-19 will leave behind.
We need to decide what purposes our towns and cities are there to meet, and the ways in which they can be repurposed for a greener and prosperous future.
It’s a debate in which companies such as ours should have a voice. We know how buildings and whole areas can be transformed to meet the needs of changed futures.